From the “Composer” series
“Crazy World Ain’t It?” John Van Hamersveld captures the incandescent in American subcultures
The “Composer” Series by John Van Hamersveld
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America came home from World War II and missed its period. Ever since, our nation has been swallowing the baby boomers like an anaconda swallows a pig.
Sometimes I like to think of my parents’ generation as a single child born in 1945, carving its way through our culture like a glacier. As a teenager in the ‘60s, it rebelled, got high and inspired the world. It took risks and danced to disco. It got a job. It worked hard (and did too much coke) before settling down, voting for Reagan and inventing the minivan.
Say what you will about Boomers, but their influence on American culture was something marvelous and uniquely human that, at every juncture, advertisers sought to trap, bottle and sell. Few have succeeded. And perhaps none quite as succinctly as those who employed the Californian artist John Van Hamersveld.
John was born three years before the war ended. The son of an engineer and an artist, at the age of 10 he moved to the hills of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, which jutt out from Los Angeles into the Pacific.
70 years later and he’s since returned to these hills with his wife Alida, to a modern single-story home where SuperRare visited them in October.
“There wasn’t anything there,” John said, pointing out the window toward the rows of homes descending toward the ocean. “I mean, the hills didn’t have houses on them. So we had this huge world out there that we could explore.”
It was the 1950s on the California coast – waves, vastness, opportunity. The forthcoming cultural revolution was yet to break the shore. His neighbors included Phil Becker and Mike Eaton, who would go on to become two of surfing’s most important board designers.
“And by 11 or 12 years old, I was going surfing at the local cove with them,” Van Hamersveld said, traipsing down the garbanzo bean fields carrying .35 cent balsa boards and cutting their teeth against the breaks of Lunada Bay.
In school he focused on art. “I didn’t have anything to do with all the sports and parties and all that,” he said. “So I would just leave on the weekends and go surfing up and down the coast of California.”
Posters pinned in Van Hamersveld’s studio
Surf culture was just coming into its own, emerging as something new, beatnik cool.
“We’d take off down the coast at 2 in the morning, get close to the breaks and just bail into the side of the road,” he said. “Wake up at five and off we’d go.”
Van Hamersveld was enrolled at ArtCenter College of Design when, in 1962, John Severson hired him first as an assistant – and soon after as art director – at Surfer magazine, where he went on to design nine bimonthly issues.
“At the time, the surfing fad was becoming an actual market,” he said.
Nicknamed “The Hammer,” John became a force on the emerging community – board poking from the back window of his 1950s Chevy coupe. In ‘64, surf filmmaker Bruce Brown asked him to design the cover for his upcoming documentary, The Endless Summer. The poster Van Hamersveld created became a phenomenon. It became the tone and symbol of the era. And it took surfing – or at least the idea of surfing, of the beach, of the California freedom – global.
Someone in Hollywood was watching and, in 1967, John was invited to interview at Capitol Records.
“So I take my portfolio, which has the Surfing magazines and it has The Endless Summer in it, over to Capitol,” he said.
Three weeks later, he gets a callback and soon finds himself on the 8th floor, the executive level, standing across from Brown Meggs, famous for signing The Beatles to the label.
“And [Meggs] looks at me in my beatnik attire from art school,” John said, “and he’s in the Yale blue suit and black tie, white shirt, and he says, ‘I’m going to hire you and you can’t turn me down.’”
For Capitol Records, Van Hamersveld designed the cover for The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour and the Beach Boys Wild Honey. He made a name for himself. He pushed back against standards.
“Hey, I can’t sell this,” John says Meggs told him, holding a copy of the design for Magical Mystery Tour with artists’ faces hidden. “Where’s John Lennon?”
During his first year at Capitol, Van Hamersveld founded Pinnacle Rock Concerts, a small production company.
“In the summer of ‘67, I had envisioned creating a ‘happening’ [with Pinnacle],” Van Hamersveld wrote in his book My Art, My Life. “Two business-type USC students came on board to book bands. Soon we began to promote concerts, and in our first year we got a good one – Jimi Hendrix in November, 1967.”
And just like that, everything exploded. The posters he designed for the proceeding Pinnacle rock concerts featuring Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Cream, The Grateful Dead and others, became legendary representations of something underground and magical, whispered and experienced. John was pushing forward a new style of drawing, techniques he invented that are mimicked and replicated through today.
“Pinnacle was a hippie operation doing 45 different rock groups around the world in one year,” he said. “We’d have these big shows, these controversial shows with a big audience: Cream in the Shrine Auditorium, 4,500 people inside the building and 2,500 outside the building trying to get in.”
John was smoking a lot of weed at the time, Stones LPs on the stereo, jetting up to Haight/Ashbury or East to hang with Warhol.
“The Chelsea Hotel was really fun going up and down the elevator,” he said.
The country was alive with something wild, something new, something revolutionary, and John was capturing and promoting it in vibrant, bright images – simple yet mysterious, provoking.
By ‘68, The Brotherhood of Eternal Love, known for their production and distribution of LSD throughout California and beyond, had dug their way into Pinnacle.
“They blended in with the Pinnacle partners,” John wrote in My Art, My Life, “like a veil of smoke under their dubious means of financing.”
“After some time, it became difficult for me to have drugs and druggies around, so I asked my partners to keep all of that at their place,” he wrote. “That, I think, created the separation of our philosophies.”
Crazy world, ain’t it?
Between 1969 and ‘73, Van Hamersveld designed and refined his now iconic, “Crazy world, ain’t it?” image as a t-shirt graphic and button image, which has been shared, repackaged and repurposed around the world. For him, it was symbolic of the moment. It was reflection.
“1970: the end of an era,” he told me. “And this is like a summary image of that: What happened? Because you had to clean up. You had to get rid of all that stuff. You had to get back to work.”
“What happened,” he said, “is that the larger corporations bought up all the interests of the era and then remarketed them. So I went to work remarketing what I’d been through.”
In the ‘70s, Van Hamersveld designed the cover for the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. He became an instructor at CalArts and through the ‘80s designed apparel campaigns, and a six-section mural for the 1984 Olympics.
In 1990, he designed the trademark for FatBurger, which had just been purchased by Chris Blackwell of Island Records – capturing a subculture from LA’s Western Boulevard and packaging it to be sent around the world. He made the transition from analog into digital and, with the birth of the internet, his work found new life in prints shipped to homes, galleries and businesses around the world.
Now, today, in 2021, he’s ready for the next era: Non-fungible tokens.
Van Hamersveld began his “Composer” series in 2007, and it is fitting that his first four minted pieces will be sourced from there. Beethoven, Mozart, Lennon, Dylan: these men reflected the culture of their time, as does John. His art is a prism through which something intangible in our cultures, something felt and experienced but not quite understood, is visually articulated.
“All of my work is really a subculture operation,” he said. He captures movements, sentiments, trends, and translates them into a visual language the whole world can understand.
Through his compositions, Van Hamersveld has ridden atop the crest of commercialism, capturing those ephemeral moments when a swell rises through America, and translating it for the world to see before it crashes against the shore and dries out beneath the sun.
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